Back to Homepage of Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma

Online Exhibit: Great Smoky Mountains: Proposed Forest Reserve

Map showing propsed Appalachian forest reserve.
Spine of bound 'Report of the Secretary of Agriculture in Relation to the Forests, Rivers, and Mountains of the Southern Appalachian Region.

Horace Kephart held much in common with President Theodore Roosevelt: Appreciation of the progressive movement that followed the push for industrial development, concern about the best implementation of Social Darwinism, and a passion for the outdoors and a search for a lost sense of barbarism. As a result, it is hardly surprising that Kephart became enthralled with a 1901 administrative report from the Department of Agriculture and accompanying endorsement by Roosevelt in transmitting the report to Congress for action.

Promoted by national business leaders, the report summarized environmental characteristics and concerns of the southern Appalachian region and proposed the purchase of 4 million acres of privately owned land to be turned into a "public forest reserve." This was intended to help control waterways that had their headwaters in the mountains, as well as provide both timber and mineral resources and income for industrial leaders that in time would repay the government for this investment.

Kephart used this report and its urgent rescue call in preparation for what became a lifetime of work in the mountains of western North Carolina. He even cut out several photographic plates from his personal copy and pasted them into his personal album where they can still be found among Kephart own photographs of the people and places of the region.

From the 1921 edition of Our Southern Highlanders, pages 13-16:

The Southern Highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.

On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? Quaintly there came to mind those lines familiar to my boyhood: "Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain; and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents or strongholds; and what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein or not."

In that dustiest room of a great library where "pub. docs." are stored, I unearthed a government report on forestry that gave, at last, a clear idea of the lay of the land. And here was news. We are wont to think of the South as a low country with sultry climate; yet its mountain chains stretch uninterruptedly southwestward from Virginia to Alabama, 650 miles in an air line. They spread over parts of eight contiguous States, and cover an area somewhat larger than England and Scotland, or about the same as that of the Alps. In short, the greatest mountain system of eastern America is massed in our Southland. In its upper zone one sleeps under blankets year round.

In all the region north of Virginia and east of the Black Hills of Dakota there is but one summit (Mount Washington in New Hampshire) that reaches 6,000 feet above sea level. And there are only a dozen that exceed 5,000 feet. By contrast, south of the Potomac there are forty-six peaks and forty-one miles of the dividing ridges, that rise above 6,000 feet, besides 288 mountains and some 300 miles of divide that stand more than 5,000 feet above the sea. In North Carolina alone the mountains cover 6,000 square miles, with an average elevation of 2,700 feet, and with twenty-one peaks that overtop Mount Washington.

I repeated to myself: "Why, then, so little known?" The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American People, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsams, and the Great Smoky Mountains. It is true that summer tourists flock to Asheville and Toxaway, Linville and Highlands, passing their time at modern hotels and motoring along a few macadamed roads, but what do they see of the billowy wilderness that conceals most of the native homes? Glimpses from afar. What do they learn of the real mountaineer? Hearsay. For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways.

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